Hy Berman's friends say he was a brilliant political mind who shunned the life of an insulated intellectual to bring Minnesota lore to life for the masses.
The longtime University of Minnesota history professor and prominent political commentator devoted his life to educating residents of his adopted home state in his gravelly, accessible style up until his death on Sunday. Berman was 90.
Those who remember Berman best say that he was not always well received among more conventional academics, but that his influence stretched further, from generations of college students to the state's most influential public leaders, such as former DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich, the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone and U.S. Sen. Al Franken.
"At a time when people in universities were trying to figure out how they can connect with the community at large, Hy did it," said Doug Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press, which will publish Berman's memoir. "He was out there in the trenches and was just someone who was always engaged. To me, that was his great gift. He wasn't just a talker, he was a doer, and that's an incredible combination."
The son of immigrant Jewish garment workers, Berman once said that his life in politics might never have happened were it not for an epiphany.
In a 2013 interview with the local cable show "Access to Democracy," Berman told interviewer Steve Francisco that he was studying to be a chemist at the City College of New York and had completed most of his courses.
"I said to myself, 'What am I doing? I am reading from a cookbook and following a cookbook and making experiments out of a cookbook,' " he told Francisco. "I didn't go here to learn culinary trades; I came here to really look at the world and try to change it."
He seized upon his interest in history, eventually earning a doctorate at Columbia University and working at a Brooklyn college and at Michigan State University.
The University of Minnesota hired Berman in 1961. At first, he said, he didn't know the state from Montana. But he quickly fell in love with Minnesota, embarking on research in the Iron Range, where he met a local dentist named Rudy Perpich. Perpich would go on to serve 10 years as one of Minnesota's most influential governors. While teaching, Berman would serve as an informal adviser to the governor, playing a key role in Perpich's decision to appoint the first woman to the Minnesota Supreme Court, Rosalie Wahl in 1977.
The job was intense, Berman told Francisco in 2013. "Many times, at 4 or 5 in the morning, my telephone would ring. Who in the hell would be calling me this early? Rudy, of course," Berman said. "He'd have an idea and want to play it off me."
Even after his 2004 retirement from the U, Berman remained active in political circles, serving as a frequent source for journalists and as a regular contributor on local television news programs. Wearing his trademark casual sweater, he frequently led informal chat sessions during the programs about politics, social justice and policy.
"He was always present, always contributed brilliant information and is probably one of the best storytellers I ever knew," said Marcia Avner, an instructor of advocacy and political leadership at Metro State University, and a consultant to several local foundations and nonprofits. "He had a great sense of humor and a great sense of outrage about injustice. His storytelling could convey both moments worth treasuring and important moments when both decisions and actions matter."
Berman's son, Steve, said he spent his childhood accompanying his father to museums and historical places.
"I prefer to remember him as a friend rather than a father because he was such a great man," Steve Berman said.
Last February, when Berman marked his 90th birthday, he teamed up with Jay Weiner, an author and speechwriter for U President Eric Kaler, to write a memoir. They wrapped up 40 hours of interviews in October.
"He was shunned sometimes by other scholars because he was 'too popular,' " Weiner said. "A, he didn't care, and B, he said something like, 'I am not gonna write for 60 other people who read some journal that nobody reads. History is for the people.' "
Weiner, a former Star Tribune reporter, said he plans to finish the book.
"It's going to be Hy's book. It's always been his book," Weiner said. "It now feels actually more important to me than it did before because his is a life that people should know about."
Berman is survived by his wife, Betty; son Steve and daughter Ruth; a brother, Harold, and a grandchild. Services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday at Temple Israel in Minneapolis.